Last days of hope and glory

The years 1880-1914 were just as much an Age of Improvement as an Age of Decadence

Allan Massie

The decadents: A.E. Housman, Beatrice Webb and, in a 1901 cartoon by Leslie Ward, Joseph Chamberlain

The title may surprise many, even offend some. Britain in 1914 was unquestionably one of the world’s Great Powers: immensely rich, its imperial dominion unchallenged, the Royal Navy master of the seas, the City of London the clearing-house for the global economy. Admittedly there were, or had been, problems. The first stages of the South African war (1899-1902) had been sadly mismanaged. There was deep industrial unrest; organised labour was on the march. The campaign for women’s suffrage had embarrassed the government. The attempt of the Liberal government to pass an Irish Home Rule Bill had provoked something close to rebellion in Protestant Ulster and even the threat of mutiny in the Army. So there were certainly difficulties, even a sense of crisis. But most of these could be paralleled elsewhere: in France and Germany, in Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even in the United States of America. So how could this be reasonably called an Age of Decadence?

It might be at least as fair to speak of an Age of Improvement, for the period covered by Simon Heffer in this intelligent, richly detailed and comprehensive survey was in many respects a time of social reform and amelioration. There was a building boom in London and other great cities — Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. This took three forms: the erection of public and commercial buildings of scarcely precedented magnificence, the development of pleasing suburbs and, if slowly, determined and often imaginative schemes to improve the housing of the poor. In England there was for the first time a comprehensive system of national education with compulsory schooling for all children, while new colleges which would become universities were established throughout the provinces, giving young men from the working classes — D.H. Lawrence, for example — opportunities earlier generations had never enjoyed. Literature and other arts flourished; the England of Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams was no longer the “Land without Music”. There were municipal orchestras, museums, art galleries and theatres as never before. If the old landed aristocracy was in the process of being dislodged — Gladstone’s cabinets being the last to be dominated by dukes, marquises and earls — partly on account of the decades-long agricultural depression, which was the unavoidable consequence of the Free Trade that had contributed to the extraordinary economic growth of Victorian England, it was being replaced by a glittering plutocracy, of which Galsworthy’s Forsytes with their residences ringing Hyde Park may be taken as exemplars. There had never been a time — there would never be such a time again — when it was so agreeable to belong to the professional and commercial classes. Britain was richer than it had ever been, and the pound sovereign was gold.

Yet Simon Heffer’s identification of the period as one of Decadence can’t be dismissed out of hand, even if one adds the rider that evidence of Decadence, side by side with Progress, can be found in most ages. Heffer is well-known as a newspaper columnist, historian and the admiring biographer of Thomas Carlyle and Enoch Powell. He is a man of strong opinions, an unusual combination of the Puritan moralist and the Romantic patriot who is a lover of music, rural England and county cricket. He writes well about what he holds in contempt — his account of the Marconi case, a piece of shabby political corruption, is excellent, his treatment of the disgusting pseudo-science of eugenics promoted by the liberal and socialist intelligentsia is admirably contemptuous, but he writes better still about what he loves. He displays a strong dislike of Virginia Woolf but a tender affection for A.E. Housman who offers “a view of an England that is hallowed, the holy soil linked to a rarefied people and way of life honoured by time”. One remembers that Enoch Powell’s poetry was sub-Housman.

Heffer’s sympathies are wider than those acquainted only with some of his polemical journalism might expect. His puritanical moralism enables him to write, admiringly and understandingly, about Beatrice and Sidney Webb. For many today the Webbs are known best, perhaps even only, as dupes of the Soviet Union, two of Lenin’s “useful idiots”. Heffer shows what a remarkable woman Beatrice was, and what good and necessary work the pair did before 1914, developing “social theories that would resonate through the Labour movement for decades, such as the idea of a minimum wage and about duties the individual owed to society”; they were also instrumental in creating the London School of Economics, “a great achievement which shaped the future by facilitating the liberal education that would help secure social reform”.

It’s easy in retrospect to see where politicians go wrong, but Heffer, as a good historian, never forgets that events which are now in the past were once in the future, and that political judgments must be made on what is insufficient information. So his criticism is usually tempered by his awareness of circumstances. Certainly the politicians of his Age of Decadence seem like giants when compared to today’s pygmies. Gladstone is, I think, his hero, followed by the adamantine cynic Salisbury. He has a proper admiration for Joe Chamberlain, a man capable of striking out in new directions, whose pursuit of ideas broke first the Liberal, then the Conservative Party. (The young Beatrice Webb was in love with him and almost became both the second and, later, the third Mrs Chamberlain.) Heffer has a soft spot for the unflappable Arthur Balfour, a party leader and Prime Minister who never read the newspapers, and he remarks that Asquith was the last Prime Minister to have been evidently drunk on the Treasury bench. (His biographer, Roy Jenkins, claimed that though he might on occasion have been unsteady on his feet, his mind and diction remained clear. Perhaps.) Heffer has no time for the vulgar swagger of Lord Randolph Churchill with his diamond-studded cigarette holder, and shows just how lucky Lloyd George was to have lived at a time when even newspapers regarded his sex life as something the public had no right, or need, to know. (Question: was this a sign of decadence or good sense?)

The running sore of Heffer’s “Age” was the Irish Question, addressed by every Prime Minister from Gladstone on, resolved by none of them. Its settlement became acute after the Lords rejected Lloyd George’s People’s Budget, and two subsequent general elections left the Liberal government dependent on support from the Irish Nationalists. Heffer’s account of the parliamentary crises of the five years before the outbreak of war in 1914 is clear and gripping. As Asquith brought a Home Rule Bill before Parliament, Protestant Ulster resisted. Andrew Bonar Law, Balfour’s successor as Tory leader, came close to flirting with treason. Sir Edward Carson, a Dubliner by birth, and F.E. Smith made inflammatory speeches supporting, even advocating, armed resistance to Home Rule. Nevertheless, the Home Rule Bill passed through Parliament, even while proposals for at least a temporary opt-out by those Ulster counties with a Protestant majority were being considered. Only the outbreak of war in August 1914 prevented its enactment.

There was Labour unrest too; it was “the most socially divisive and disruptive period since the rise of Chartism in the late 1830s”. True enough, but there were comparable, and often more disruptive labour troubles in France, Germany and the US, and surely one of the most remarkable features of the 20th century was the ability of the ruling class to expand its membership and bring organised Labour into the fold of the constitution. The class war never became a reality in Britain — evidence that Decadence is not the right word to describe the period covered by Heffer.

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